May you and yours be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a sweet New Year.
On this, the eve of Yom Kippur, I give you Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a song taken/inspired by Kol Nidre, the prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service on the Day of Atonement; the name is taken from the opening words.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, when we are closest to G‑d and to the essence of our souls. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” as the verse states, “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d.”1 (Chabad)
According to the tradition, the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) is the time when the final verdict is made for each human life for the coming year. Everyone confesses his sins. In the synagogue, the Yom Kippur service begins in the evening with special prayers called Kol Nidre (“all my vows”), asking for the annulment of all vows. This prayer is chanted by the cantor in a somber and deeply moving melody.
The start of Yom Kippur will mark the beginning of traditional fasting at sundown today, 6:41 pm.
There’s an old tradition that insists that on a certain day of every year the Book of Life is opened and in it is inscribed those who will live and those who die, who by fire, who by fire, who by water…
That song derives very directly from a Hebrew prayer that is sung on the Day of Atonement, or the evening of the Day of the Atonement: Who by fire, who by sword, who by water? According to the tradition, the Book of Life is opened and in it is inscribed all those who will live and all those who will die for the following year. And in that prayer is catalogued all the various ways in which you can quit this veil of tears. The melody is if not actually stolen, is certainly derived from the melody that I heard in the synagogue as a boy.But of course, the conclusion of the song, as I write it, is somewhat different: “Who shall I say is calling?” Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms, which is who is it or what is it that determine who will live and who will die ? What is the source of this great furnace of creation ? Who lights it ? Who extinguishes it ?
Melbourne March 1980
The melody on which this next song is based I first heard when I was four or five years old, in the synagogue, on the Day of Atonement, standing beside my tall uncles in their black suits. It¹s a liturgical prayer that talks about the way in which you can quit this vale of tears. It’s according to a tradition, an ancient tradition that on a certain day of the year, the Book of Life is opened, and in it is inscribed the names of all those who will live and all those who will die, who by fire, who by water…
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